The Coming Palestinian Diplomatic Revolution

News Abroad

Guy Laron is Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The clouds of smoke wafting over Libya, the gunshots heard in Syria’s main cities and the continuing unrest in Egypt and Bahrain, block from view one of the most momentous developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  After many years in which the Palestinians have tried intermittently bilateral talks with Israel and armed rebellion, they are now mastering the art of diplomacy.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) plans to bring up Palestinian independence during the coming UN meeting in September and the General Assembly is set to adopt a resolution calling for admittance of Palestine as a member state.  This will likely increase international pressure on Israel to speed up its negotiations with the PA and dismantle Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  If that happens, then the Palestinians would have achieved a major political coup, indeed, a revolution, using diplomatic rather than military means.  

In practicing diplomatic maneuvers, however, the Palestinians are only following a trail blazed by the Indonesians, the Algerians and Anwar Sadat’s Egypt.  In all of these cases, the weaker actor was able to shame the United States by forcing it to acknowledge its support for an occupying power or put its interests in danger.  In each case, to avoid international embarrassment and quell Third World resentment, Washington had to force major Cold War allies, in these respective cases the Netherlands, France and Israel to relinquish territory and acknowledge the legitimacy of nationalist demands.  Those histories may help us understand why diplomatic pressure can be such an effective tool in national liberation struggles and how the trajectory of the coming Palestinian diplomatic revolution might enfold.

Between 1945 and 1949 the Indonesian national movement fought for independence against Dutch attempts to renew their colonial empire.  The Indonesians were able to draw attention to their plight partly thanks to a boycott on Dutch ships by Indian, Malayan, Chinese and Australian seaman.  Another progress was made when the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, convened two Asian conferences to raise international awareness to Indonesia’s predicament.  The U.S., fearing that Nehru might use the conflict in Indonesia to build up a neutralist Asian bloc which would jeopardize American Cold War strategy, responded with alacrity.  In 1949, when the Dutch embarked on another brutal “police operation” along areas controlled by Indonesian nationalists, Dean Acheson, U.S. secretary of state, told the Dutch that the Netherlands would be denied Marshall Plan funds and NATO protection unless and until it solved its open conflict with the Indonesians.  By the end of that year the Dutch acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty over the archipelago.

Only two years later, the Algerian resistance movement, the FLN, started following the same strategy.  Calculating that their chances to win against France in the battlefield were nil, the FLN decided to combine guerilla campaign with a diplomatic strategy that focused on driving a wedge between France and the U.S.  “[T]he more we push the U.S. to implicate itself with colonialism,” explained the Algerian architect of that policy, Ait Ahmed, “the closer will be the day when [the Americans] will see themselves obliged to bail out.”  The Algerians could rely on the Afro-Asian bloc at the UN to raise the Algerian problem again and again forcing the Americans to choose between their NATO ally and the wrath of the Third World.  Incessant American pressure on the French to move toward a peaceful resolution of the Algerian War was one of the main reasons that Algeria won independence in 1962.

Anwar Sadat as Egyptian president pursued a similar strategy between 1969 and 1973 when he was trying to force Israel to cede the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had earlier conquered.  Egyptian propaganda in the Third World portrayed Israel as the tool of Western imperialism.  In Africa, Israel’s alleged racism was emphasized by Egyptian spokesmen.  In Western Europe, Egyptian diplomacy claimed that Israeli obstinacy was the sole obstacle to stability in the Middle East and a threat for the free flow of oil from the area.  By 1973 most African countries had severed their relations with Israel, non-aligned nations called for the ostracization of Israel and West European countries were leaning on Jerusalem to come to terms with its Egyptian adversary and urging Washington to do the same.  Swayed by this inhospitable atmosphere, the Nixon administration warned the Golda Meir government against launching a pre-emptive strike when the tension across the ceasefire line between Israel and Egypt increased during early October 1973.  When the Egyptians attacked on the 6th of October, the death toll on the Israeli side was such that the Israeli electorate started to reconsider its support for holding Sinai.  The oil embargo on the U.S. orchestrated by Arab countries in the aftermath of that war solidified Washington’s resolve to bring an end to the Israeli-Egyptian conflict.  Veiled American threats to employ sanctions against Israel in the following years led to the Israeli decision in 1979 to relinquish Sinai.

The Palestinians’ greatest success so far had been a wave of recognition in Latin American countries achieved in no small part thanks to the lobbying efforts of Palestinian communities on that continent.  Years of patient diplomacy vis-à-vis Europe seem to be paying off as France and Britain are on the brink of acknowledging Palestinian statehood. Because of the Palestinian diplomatic campaign, the U.S. finds itself once again forced to choose between support of a steadfast ally and the wrath of an Arab world.  It all takes place at a time when the U.S. is involved in fighting in three Middle Eastern countries—Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya—and has tense relations with a fourth, Iran.  The American economy, now enjoying a weak recovery, is also dependent on the free flow of Arab oil.  Washington, therefore, can ill-afford to ignore Palestinian grievances. While the U.S. will undoubtedly support Israel publically, it would most probably increase behind the scenes pressure on Israel to cede control of the West Bank.  Obviously, the U.N. debate in September would likely be only a first step in a long journey.  Nevertheless, now that the Palestinians have mastered the art of diplomacy, they would use it to press their issue ever more forcefully.  Judging from Indonesian, Algerian and Egyptian experience, the Palestinians, if tenacious and persistent, will win the day.

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